Vietnamese body language and what it means

Having lived in Việt Nam for seven months now, I have to say I have learned a lot, especially, in the form of communication.

With differences in language and customs I find myself having trouble even in the most simple of interactions.

In situations, mainly at a restaurant or a market, I tend to overcompensate my lack of verbal communication with hand motions.

Most of the time, this works out.

Unfortunately, just like spoken language, hand signals and body language have different meanings and have the ability to offend people.

If you find yourself in Việt Nam attempting to non-verbally communicate, here are a few things I have learned that could help you not send the wrong message.

When trying to get someone to come to you, let’s say a waitress at a restaurant, do not point your finger and flex it toward your body as we do in America.

If you use this method to beckon a Vietnamese local they may get upset.

This is because this is how you call for an animal or a small child.

Furthermore, beckoning signifies that that person has a lower class than you, so it can be very upsetting to older Vietnamese.

Instead, keep your palm down and flex your entire hand, this will keep everyone happy.

With practice I have come to break this miscommunication.

I was recently attending a concert taking pictures of some friends, when I asked them to pose for the camera they stuck up their middle finger.

I thought they were trying to ruin the picture because in America this is the most offensive hand signal that can be made.

Commonly used by angry drivers it is a way to tell another person off.

In Vietnam, however, this is not the case.

The middle finger is simply another counting number.

The middle finger and index finger to them coordinate by taking turns as the number one.

Commonly, Vietnamese people point to things and ask for one item of something by putting up their middle fingers.

So, if you see a Vietnamese person giving you the finger, they likely have no idea they could be offending you.

Many times sitting on the side of the street, I have found myself approached by people selling things that I do not want to buy.

When I moved to Việt Nam, I would shake my head “no, thank you” and persistent sellers would continue to test my patience.

Thanks to friendly observation, I quickly learned that unlike America, where a left to right shake of the head means no, the Vietnamese use a hand motion to communicate the word no.

Using your open hand, palm up, simply twist it back and forth and the salesperson will get the message.

While shopping, I’ve even received shopkeepers giving me two hands, when they don’t agree on selling me something for the price I ask.

Learning my way around this city has been an eventful feat in itself.

One time I told one of my Vietnamese friends to “wish me luck” as I had to cross downtown during rush hour.

Subconsciously, I simultaneously, crossed my fingers when saying this.

My friend stopped me and asked, “Why did you cross your fingers?”

I explained to her that in America crossing your fingers is a sign of good luck.

We sometimes even cross our fingers for luck when we’re waiting for good news or the results of a test.

After repeating this to her, she laughed and continued to explain to me that in Vietnam, this is not the case.

She told me that crossing your fingers is considered a rude, and disrespectful gesture that refers to part of the female anatomy.

After learning this I was thankful she told me before I upset any other locals around me.

Public displays of affection between a man and a woman, such as holding hands or kissing, are generally accepted in the western world, and can seemingly go unnoticed.

But while inVietnam, I tend to notice less co-ed displays of affection.

More often than not I will see girls and, or, older women holding hands or linking arms with their girl friends.

While most Vietnamese realize that westerners have different behaviors in public, and may not care if you and your significant other hold hands, kissing will still likely cause offense.

Personally, this does not bother me, because I have never been a big fan of public displays of affection.

This brings me to my last gesture, the crossing of the arms.

Back home when I am talking to someone with their arms crossed I tend to think they are mad at me or are trying to cover something up.

However, I have learned that if you’re speaking to your Vietnamese friend and they cross their arms you may think the same, but fear not.

The act of crossing your arms also has a different meaning in Việt Nam.

Instead of something that is done when someone is upset, here crossing your arms is considered a sign of respect.

Remember, communicating in Việt Nam, especially when you don’t speak the language, is difficult for most westerners.

But, if you remember these non-verbal differences at least you can save yourself some embarrassment and keep the inadvertent offending at a minimum.


Source: Tuổi Trẻ News

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  • Jennifer Pietsch  On January 27, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    Thanks for this it was very interesting :)

  • Thanh  On April 8, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    I’m a Vietnamese and I accidentally come here when I’m looking for body language. It’s a good article but I have something to tell you. Firstly, in big city (HCMC, Hanoi,…), we are influenced by mass multimedia, thus, do NOT use your middle finger when you want to point at someone or something. The middle finger should never be alone when you do a gesture (combine it with other fingers). Secondly, Vietnamese girls tend to link arms with other girls, it means that they are close friends/ sisters … (because girls are emotional) and my mother like to link arms with me (I’m a 21-year-old man) in public (mother loves son, that’s all). Don’t think that they are lesbian or something (for the boys, they NEVER hold hand or link arm with other boys >.<). Lastly, crossing arms does not mean respect, it means they are to watch/listen to you carefully and consider it.

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